The brilliant retelling of the Wars of the Roses continues with Margaret of Anjou, the second gripping novel in the new series from historical fiction master Conn Iggulden.
As traitors advance . . . a queen defends.
It is 1454 and for more than a year King Henry VI has remained all but exiled in Windsor Castle, struck down by his illness, his eyes vacant, his mind blank. His fiercely loyal wife and queen, Margaret of Anjou, safeguards her husband’s interests, hoping that her son Edward will one day come to know his father.
With each month that Henry is all but absent as king, Richard, the duke of York, protector of the realm, extends his influence throughout the kingdom. A trinity of noblesYork and Salisbury and Warwickare a formidable trio and together they seek to break the support of those who would raise their colors and their armies in the name of Henry and his queen.
But when the king unexpectedly recovers his senses and returns to London to reclaim his throne, the balance of power is once again thrown into turmoil. The clash of the Houses of Lancaster and York may be the beginning of a war that could tear England apart . . .
Following Stormbird, Margaret of Anjou is the second epic installment in master storyteller Conn Iggulden’s new Wars of the Roses series. Fans of the Game of Thrones and the Tudors series will be gripped from the word “go.”
About the Author
Conn Iggulden is one of the most successful authors of historical fiction writing today. Following Stormbird, Margaret of Anjou is the second book in his superb new series set during the Wars of the Roses, a remarkable period of British history. His previous two series, on Julius Caesar and on the Mongol Khans of Central Asia, describe the founding of the greatest empires of their day and were number-one bestsellers. Conn lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and children.
Read an Excerpt
LATE SUMMER 1454
People crushed by law have no hopes but from power. If laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to laws.
With the light still cold and gray, the castle came alive. Horses were brought from their stalls and rubbed down; dogs barked and fought with each other, kicked out of the way by those who found them in their path. Hundreds of young men were busy gathering tack and weapons, rushing around the main yard with armfuls of equipment.
In the great tower, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, stared out of the window to the bustling sward all around his fortress. The castle stones were warm in the August heat, but the old man wore a cloak and mantle of fur around his shoulders even so, clutched tight to his chest. He was still both tall and broad, though age had bowed him down. His sixth decade had brought aches and creaking joints that made all movement painful and his temper short.
The earl glowered through the leaded glass. The town was waking. The world was rising with the sun and he was ready to act, after so long biding his time. He watched as armored knights assembled, their servants passing out shields that had been painted black, or covered in sackcloth bound with twine. The Percy colors of blue and yellow were nowhere in evidence, hidden from view so that the soldiers waiting for his order had a somber look. For a time, they would be gray men, hedge knights without house or family. Men without honor, when honor was a chain to bind them.
The old man sniffed, rubbing hard at his nose. The ruse would fool no one, but when the killing was over, he would still be able to claim no Percy knight or archer had been part of it. Most importantly of all, those who might have cried out against him would be cold in the ground.
As he stood there, deep in thought, he heard his son approach, the young man’s spurred heels clicking and rattling on the wooden floor. The earl looked around, feeling his old heart thump with anticipation.
“God give you good day,” Thomas Percy said, bowing. He too allowed his gaze to stray through the window, down to the bustle of the castle grounds below. Thomas raised an eyebrow in silent question and his father grunted, irritated at the footsteps of servants all around.
“Come with me.” Without waiting for a reply, the earl swept along the corridor, the force of his authority pulling Thomas along behind him. He reached a doorway to his private chambers and almost dragged his son inside, slamming the door behind them. As Thomas stood and watched, the old man strode jerkily through the rooms, banging doors back and forth as he went. His suspicion showed in the deepening purple of his face, the skin made darker still by a stain of broken veins that stretched right across his cheeks and nose. The earl could never be pale, with that marbling. If it had been earned in strong spirits from over the Scottish border, it suited his mood well enough. Age had not mellowed the old man, though it had dried and hardened him.
Satisfied they were alone, the earl came back to his son, still waiting patiently with his back to the door. Thomas Percy, Baron Egremont, stood no taller than his father once had, though without the stoop of age he could see over the old man’s head. At thirty-two, Thomas was in the prime of his manhood, his hair black and his forearms thick with sinew and muscle earned over six thousand days of training. As he stood there, he seemed almost to glow with health and strength, his ruddy skin unmarked by scar or disease. Despite the years between them, both men bore the Percy nose, that great wedge that could be seen in dozens of crofts and villages all around Alnwick.
“There, we are private,” the earl said at last. “She has her ears everywhere, your mother. I cannot even talk to my own son without her people reporting every word.”
“What news, then?” his son replied. “I saw the men, gathering swords and bows. Is it the border?”
“Not today. Those damned Scots are quiet, though I don’t doubt the Douglas is forever sniffing round my lands. They’ll come in winter when they starve, to try and steal my cows. And we’ll send them running when they do.”
His son hid his impatience, knowing well that his father could rant about the “cunning Douglas” for an hour if he was given the chance.
“The men though, father. They have covered the colors. Who threatens us who must be taken by hedge knights?”
His father stood close to him, reaching out and hooking a bony hand over the lip of the leather breastplate to draw him in.
“Your mother’s Nevilles, boy, always and forever the Nevilles. Wherever I turn in my distress, there they are, in my path!” Earl Percy raised his other hand as he spoke, holding it up with the fingers joined like a beak. He jabbed the air with it, close by his son’s face. “Standing in such numbers they can never be counted. Married into every noble line! Into every house! I have the damned Scots clawing away at my flank, raiding England, burning villages in my own land. If I did not stand against them, if I let but one season pass without killing the young men they send to test me, they would come south like a dam bursting. Where would England be then, without Percy arms to serve her? But the Nevilles care nothing for all that. No, they throw their weight and wealth to York, that pup. He rises, held aloft by Neville hands, while titles and estates of ours are stolen away.”
“Warden of the West March,” his son muttered wearily. He had heard his father’s complaints many times before.
Earl Percy’s glare intensified.
“One of many. A title that should have been your brother’s, with fifteen hundred pounds a year, until that Neville, Salisbury, was given it. I have swallowed that, boy. I have swallowed him being made chancellor while my king dreams and sleeps and France was lost. I have swallowed so much from them that I find I am stuffed full.”
The old man had drawn his son so close their faces almost touched. He kissed Thomas brief ly on the cheek, letting him go. From long habit, he checked the room around them once more, though they were alone.
“You have good Percy blood in you, Thomas. It will drive your mother’s out in time, as I will drive out the Nevilles upon the land. They have been given to me, Thomas, do you understand? By the grace of God, I have been handed a chance to take back all they have stolen. If I were twenty years younger, I would take Windstrike and ride them down myself, but . . . those days are behind.” The old man’s eyes were almost feverish as he stared up at his son. “You must be my right arm in this, Thomas. You must be my sword and flail.”
“You honor me,” Thomas murmured, his voice breaking. As a mere second son, he had grown to his prime with little of the old man’s affection. His elder brother, Henry, was away with a thousand men across the border of Scotland, there to raid and burn and weaken the savage clans. Thomas thought of him and knew Henry’s absence was the true reason his father had taken him aside. There was no one else to send. Though the knowledge made him bitter, he could not resist the chance to show his worth to the one man he allowed to judge him.
“Henry has the best of our fighting cocks,” his father said, echoing his thoughts. “And I must keep some strong hands at Alnwick, in case the cunning Douglas slips your brother and comes south to rape and steal. That little man knows no greater pleasure than in taking what is mine. I swear he—”
“Father, I will not fail,” Thomas said. “How many will you send with me?”
His father paused in irritation at being interrupted, his eyes sharp with rebuke. At last, he nodded, letting it go.
“Seven hundred, or thereabouts. Two hundred men-at-arms, though the rest are brickmakers and smiths and common men with bows. You will have Trunning and if you have wit, you will let him advise you—and listen well to him. He knows the land around York and he knows the men. Perhaps if you had not spent so much of your youth on drink and whores, I would not doubt you. Whisht! Don’t take it hard, boy. There must be a son of mine in this, to give the men heart. But they are my men, not yours. Follow Trunning. He will not lead you wrong.”
Thomas flushed, his own anger rising. The thought of the two old men planning out some scheme together brought a tension to his frame that his father noted.
“You understand?” Earl Percy snapped. “Heed Trunning. That is my order to you.”
“I understand,” Thomas said, striving hard to conceal his disappointment. For one moment, he’d thought his father might trust him in command, rather than raising his brother, or some other man, over him. He felt the loss of something he’d never had.
“Will you tell me then where I must ride for you, or should I ask Trunning for that as well?” Thomas said.
His voice was strained, and his father’s mouth quirked in response, amused and scornful.
“I said not to take it hard, boy. You’ve a good right arm and you are my son, but you’ve not led, not beyond a few skirmishes. The men do not respect you, as they do Trunning. How could they? He’s fought for twenty years, in France and England both. He’ll see you safe.”
The earl waited for some sign that his son had accepted the point, but Thomas glowered, wounded and angry. Earl Percy shook his head, going on.
“There is a Neville marriage tomorrow, Thomas, down at Tattershall. Your mother’s clan has reached out to bring yet another into their grasp. That preening cockerel, Salisbury, will be there, to see his son wed. They will be at peace, content to take a new bride back to their holding at the manor of Sheriff Hutton. My man told me all, risking his bones to reach me in time. I paid him well for it, mind. Now listen. They will be on horses and on foot, a merry wedding party traipsing back to feast on a fine summer day. And you will be there, Thomas. You will ride them down, leaving no one alive. That is my order to you. Do you understand it?”
Thomas swallowed hard as his father watched him. Earl Salisbury was his mother’s brother, the man’s sons his own cousins. Thomas had been thinking he would ride out after some weaker branch of the Neville tree, not the root itself and the head of the clan. If he did as he was told, he would make more blood-enemies in a day than in his entire life to that point. Even so, he nodded, unable to trust his voice. His father’s mouth twisted sourly, seeing once again his son’s weakness and indecision.
“Salisbury’s boy is marrying Maud Cromwell. You know her uncle holds Percy manors, refusing my claim to them. It seems he thinks he can give my estates in dowry to the Nevilles, that they are now so strong I will be forced to drop my suits and cases against him. I am sending you to show them justice. To show them the authority Cromwell f louts as he seeks a greater shadow to hide beneath! Listen to me now. Take my seven hundred and kill them all, Thomas. Be sure Cromwell’s niece is among the dead, that I may invoke her name when next I meet her weeping uncle in the king’s court. Do you understand?”
“Of course I understand!” Thomas said, his voice hardening. He felt his hands tremble as he glared at his father, but he would not suffer the old man’s scorn by refusing. He set his jaw, the decision made.
A knock sounded on the door at Thomas’s back, making both men start like guilty conspirators. Thomas stood away to let it swing open, blanching at the sight of his mother standing there.
His father drew himself up, his chest puffing out.
“Go now, Thomas. Bring honor to your family and your name.” “Stay, Thomas,” his mother said quickly, her expression cold. Thomas hesitated, then dipped his head, slipping past her and striding away. Alone, Countess Eleanor Percy turned sharply to her husband.
“I see your guards and soldiers arming themselves, covering Percy colors. Now my son rushes from me like a whipped cur. Will you have me ask, then? What foul plan have you been whispering into his ears this time, Henry? What have you done?”
Earl Percy took a deep breath, his triumph showing clearly.
“Were you not listening at the door like a maid, then? I am surprised,” he said. “What I havedone is no business of yours.” As he spoke, he moved to go past her into the corridor outside. Eleanor stepped into his path to stop him, raising her hand against his chest.
In response, the earl gripped it cruelly, crushing her fingers so that she cried out. He twisted further, controlling her with a hand on her elbow.
“Please, Henry. My arm . . .” she said, gasping.
He twisted harder at that, making her shriek. In the corridor, he caught a glimpse of a servant hurrying closer and kicked savagely at the door so that it slammed shut. As his wife whimpered, the old man bent her forward, almost doubled over, with his grip tight on her hand and arm.
“I have done no more than your Nevilles would do to me, if I were ever at their mercy,” he said into her ear. “Did you think I would allow your brother to rise above the Percy name? Chancellor to the Duke of York now, he threatens everything I am, everything I must protect. Do you understand? I took you on to give me sons, a fertile Neville bride. Well, you have done that. Now do not dare ask me the business of my house.”
“You are hurting me,” she said, her face crumpling in anger and pain. “You see enemies where there are none. And if you seek my brother, he will see you dead, Henry. Richard will kill you.”
With a grunt of outrage, her husband heaved her across the room, sending her sprawling across the bed. He was on her before she could rise to her feet, tearing her dress and bawling at her in red-faced rage as he wrenched at the cloth and bared her skin. She sobbed and struggled, but he was infernally strong in his anger, ignoring her nails as she left red lines on his face and arms. He held her down with one hand, exposing the long pale line of her back as he drew his belt from his trousers and doubled it over into a short whip.
“You will not speak to me in such a way, in my own house.” He landed blow after blow with the snapping sounds as loud as her desperate cries. No one came, though he went on and on until she was still, no longer struggling. Long red welts seeped blood to stain the fine cloth as he gasped and panted, fat beads of sweat dropping from his nose and brow onto her skin. With grim satisfaction, the earl replaced his belt and left his wife to sob into the coverlet.
Servants opened the door to the marshaling yard beyond as Thomas Percy, Baron Egremont, walked out. The noise of hundreds of men crashed over him under the blue sky, making his heart beat faster. With an irritated glance, he saw members of his own staff were already there, suborned by his father and waiting patiently for him. They carried armor and his weapons, while other men worked on Balion, the great black charger he had bought for a ruinous price the previous year. It seemed his father had been in no doubt as to the outcome of their conversation. Thomas frowned as he approached the group within the milling mass of men, taking in the sheer complexity of the scene. Far above them all, he could hear his mother screaming like a butchered sow, no doubt as the old man laid into her yet again. Thomas felt only irritation that she should intrude so on his thoughts. He was forced to look down rather than suffer the un- wanted intimacy of other men’s eyes. With each new wail, they either grinned or winced, while his anger at her only grew. The rise of the Neville family ate at his father, ruining the old man with suspicions and rages when the earl should have been enjoying quiet years and turning over the running of estates to his sons. As the sounds died away at last, Thomas looked up to the window of his father’s private rooms. It was typical of the old man to set his plans in motion for days or weeks without even bothering to tell his own son what he intended.
With quick, neat motions, Thomas removed his leather breast- plate and cloak, stripping down in the yard to hose and undertunic, already showing patches of dark sweat. There was no modesty there and scores of young men joked and shouted to one another as they hopped with an armored boot, or called for some piece of their equipment that had found its way into someone else’s spot. Thomas seated himself on a high stool, sitting patiently while his servants worked to fasten the padded gambeson jerkin and strap him into each plate of his personal armor. It fitted him well, and if the scars and marks were from the training yard rather than a battle, it was still a good set, well worn. As he raised his arms for the breastplate to be strapped on, he glared at the marks of a scourer, the metal dulled by some kitchen girl working it like a pot. The blue and yellow crest had been obliterated and he craned his neck to see his sword where it lay ready to be handed to him. Thomas swore softly then, seeing the fine enamel badge had been chiseled from the guard. It was on his father’s orders, of course, but he had carried that sword since his twelfth birthday and it hurt to see it damaged.
Piece by piece, his armor was put on, until he stood, feeling the wonderful sense of strength and invulnerability it brought. Lord Egremont reached for the helmet his steward held out reverently to him. As he rammed it onto his head, Thomas heard the voice of his father’s swordmaster echoing across the marshaling yard.
“When the gate opens, we are gone,” Trunning shouted to the gathered men. “Be ready, for there’ll be no riding back like lady’s maids after a dropped glove. No personal servants beyond those with mounts who can hold a sword or a bow and keep up. Dried beef and raw oats, a little ale and wine, no more! Provisions for six days, but ride light, or be left behind.”
Trunning paused, his gaze sweeping across the knights and men as he readied himself to give another half-dozen instructions. He caught sight of the Percy son and moved on the instant to come to his side. It gave Thomas some small satisfaction to look down on the shorter man.
“What is it, Trunning?” he said, deliberately keeping his voice cold. Trunning didn’t reply at first, just stood, looking him over and chewing the white mustache that drooped over his lips. His father’s swordmaster had trained both Percy sons in weapons and tactics, beginning so early in their lives that Thomas could not remember a time he had not been there, shouting in anger at some poor stroke, or demanding to know who had taught him to hold a shield “like a Scots maid.” With no effort of memory, Thomas could recall five bones broken by the red-faced little man over the years: two in his right hand, two cracked forearms, and a small bone in his foot where Trunning had once stamped down in a tussle. Each one had meant weeks of pain in splints and withering scorn for every groan he made while they were bound. It was not that Thomas hated or even feared his father’s man. He knew Trunning was intensely loyal to the house of Percy and Northumberland, like a particularly savage old hound. Yet for all the differences in their station, Thomas, Lord Egremont, could not imagine the man ever accepting him as an equal, never mind his superior. The very fact that his father had placed Trunning in command of the raid was proof of that. The pair of old bastards were cut from the same rough cloth, with not a drop of kindness or mercy in either of them. It was no wonder they got on so well.
“Your father has talked to you, then? Told you the way of it?” Trunning said at last. “Has he said to mark my orders in all things, to bring you safe home with a couple of new scratches on that fine armor of yours?”
Thomas repressed a shudder at the man’s voice. Perhaps the result of so many years bawling across fields and streets at those he trained, Trunning was always hoarse, his spoken words mingling with deep, wheezing breaths.
“He has told me you will command, Trunning, yes. To a point.” Trunning blinked lazily, weighing him up.
“And what point would that be, my noble lord Egremont?”
To his dismay, Thomas felt his heart hammer in his chest and his own breathing grow tight. He hoped the swordmaster could not sense the strain in him, though it was near certain after knowing him for so long. Nonetheless, he spoke firmly, determined not to let his father’s man rule him.
“The point where you and I disagree, Trunning. The honor of the house is mine to guard and protect. You may give orders to march and to attack and so forth, but I will consider the policy, the aims of what we are about.”
Trunning stared at him, tilting his head and rubbing at a spot above his right eye.
“If I tell your father you are chafing, he’ll make you come along as a potboy, if at all,” he said, smiling unpleasantly. He was surprised when the young man turned to face him fully, leaning down.
“If you carry tales to the old man, I will stay. See how far you get from the gates without a son of the Percy family at the head. And then, Trunning, you’ll have made an enemy of Egremont. Now I’ve told you my terms. You do as you please.”
Thomas deliberately turned back to his servants then, beckoning for them to adjust and add a drop of oil to his visor. He felt Trun- ning’s gaze and his heart continued to race, but he was certain of himself, in that one thing. He did not look round when the sword- master stalked off, not even to see if Trunning would march into the castle and take his complaints to his father. Lord Egremont lowered his visor to conceal his expression. His father and Trunning were both old men and, for all their will and spite, old men fell away in the end. Thomas would take the archers and the swordsmen against his uncle’s wedding party, either with Trunning or without him it mattered not at all. He looked again at the small army his father had called to Percy service. Hundreds were no more than town men, summoned by their feudal lord. Yet whether they worked as smith, butcher, or tanner, each of them had trained with ax or bow from their earliest years, developing skills that would make them useful to a man like Earl Percy of Alnwick. Thomas smiled to himself, raising his visor once again.
“Form on the gate!” he roared at them. From the corner of his eye, he saw Trunning’s trim shape jerk round, but Thomas ignored him. Old men fell away, he told himself again, with satisfaction. Young men came to rule.
Derry Brewer was in a foul mood. The rain poured down in sheets, drumming against the bald dome of his head. He had never realized before how a good head of hair really soaked up the rain. With his pate so cruelly exposed, the dreadful pattering made his skull ache and his ears itch. To add to his discomfort, he wore a sodden brown robe that slapped wetly against his bare shanks, chafing the skin. His head had been shaved by a fairly expert hand just that morning, so that it still felt new and sore and appallingly exposed to the elements. The friars trudging along with him were all tonsured, the white circles of scalp gleaming wetly in the gloom. As far as Derry could tell, none of them had eaten a morsel of food since dawn, though they had walked and chanted all day.
The great walls of the royal castle lay ahead up Peascod Street as they rang their bell for alms and prayed aloud, the only ones foolish enough to stand out in the rain when there was shelter to be had. Windsor was a wealthy town; the castle it existed to serve was only twenty miles from London, like half a dozen others around the capital, each a day’s march apart. The presence of the king’s household had brought some of the very best goldsmiths, jewelers, vintners, and mercers out of the capital city, eager to sell their wares. With the king himself in residence, more than eight hundred men and women in his service swelled the crowds and raised the prices of everything from bread and wine to a gold bracelet.
In his sour humor, Derry assumed Franciscan friars would be attracted by the f low of coins as well. He was still unsure if his grubby companions were not just rather clever beggars. It was true Brother Peter harangued the crowds for their iniquity and greed, but the rest of the friars all carried knives to sell as well as begging bowls. One wide-shouldered unfortunate seemed resigned to his role among them as the carrier of a large grindstone. Silent Godwin walked with it on his back, tied on with twine and so bowed down that he could hardly look up to see where he was going. The others said he endured the weight as penance for some past sin and Derry had not dared ask what it had been.
At the intervals of abbey services throughout the day, the group would stop and pray, accepting offers of water or homebrewed beer brought out to them as they assembled a treadle and set the stone spinning, sharpening knives and blessing those who passed over a coin, no matter how small. Derry felt a pang of guilt about the tight leather purse he wore snug and close to his groin. He had silver enough in there to feed them all to bursting, but if he brought it out, he suspected Brother Peter would give it away to some undeserving sod and leave the monks to starve. Derry puffed out his cheeks, wiping rain from his eyes. It washed down his face in a constant stream, so that he had to blink through a blur.
It had seemed like a good idea to join them four nights before. As a result of their humble trade, the group of fourteen monks were all armed. They were also used to nights on the road where thieves might try to steal even from those who had nothing. Derry had been lurking in the stables of a cheap tavern when he’d overheard Brother Peter talking about Windsor, where they would pray for the king’s recovery. None of them had been surprised another traveler would want to do the same, not with the king’s soul in peril and all the country so beset with violent men.
Derry sighed to himself, rubbing hard at his face. He sneezed explosively and caught himself opening his mouth to curse. Brother Peter had taken a stick to a miller just that morning for shouting a blasphemy on the open street. It had been Derry’s pleasure to see the meek leader of the group exercise a wrath that would have made him a minor name in the fight rings of London. They’d left the miller in the road, his ears leaking blood from the battering he’d received, his cart overturned and his f lour bags all broken. Derry smiled at the memory, glancing over to where Brother Peter walked, sounding his bell every thirteenth step so that it echoed back from the stone walls at the top of the hill.
The castle loomed in the rain, there was no other way to describe it. The massive walls and round baileys had never been breached in the centuries since the first stones had been laid. King Henry’s stronghold squatted over Windsor, almost another town within the first, home to hundreds. Derry stared upward, his feet aching on the cobbles.
It was almost time to leave the little group of monks and Derry wondered how best to broach the subject. Brother Peter had been astonished at his request to be tonsured as the other men. Though they accepted it for themselves as a rebuke of vanity, there was no need at all for Derry to adopt the style. It had taken all Derry’s persuasive skill before the older man allowed he could do as he pleased with his own head.
The young friar who had taken a razor to Derry’s thick hair had managed to cut his scalp twice and scrape away a piece of skin the size of a penny right on the crown. Derry had endured it all with barely a grunt of complaint, finally earning a satisfied pat on the back from Brother Peter.
In the downpour, Derry wondered if it had been worth it. He was thin and worn-down already. In an old robe, he might have passed with his head unshaven, but the stakes were the highest and the men hunting him had already shown their determination and ruthlessness, more than once. With a sigh, he told himself once again that it was a price worth paying, though he could not remember his spirits ever being lower in all his life.
Being the avowed enemy of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, was not something he had chosen for himself. When he looked back on his dealings, Derry supposed he could have been more conciliatory. The man who had trained him would have wagged a finger in reproof at the pride he’d shown. Old Bertle would have lectured him for hours, saying that a man’s enemies must never see your strength, never. Derry could almost hear the old boy’s exasperated voice as he trudged up the hill. If they believe you are weak, they don’t send hard, killing men from London to track you down. They don’t pay silver to every rumormonger for news of your whereabouts. They don’t put a price on your head, Derry!
Becoming a Franciscan for a time may have saved his neck, or simply wasted a few days, he’d never know. It was certainly true that Derry had passed groups of hostile-looking men while he’d walked with the monks, men who’d laughed and jeered and turned away as Brother Peter asked them for a coin. Any one of them or a dozen might have been in the pay of York, Derry had no way of knowing. He’d kept his gaze on the ground, trudging along with the others.
The rain ceased for a time, though thunder grumbled nearby and dark clouds still rushed overhead. Brother Peter chose that moment of quiet to place one hand on the clapper of his bell and raise the other to halt the shivering group.
“Brothers, the sun is setting and the ground is too wet to sleep in the open tonight. I know a family on the far side of town, not a mile further, over the crest of Castle Hill. They will allow us to use their barn to sleep and eat, in return for blessings on their house and joining us in prayer.”
The monks cheered up visibly at his words. Derry realized he had developed at least a whisper of respect for the odd life they led. With the exception of the bulllike mass of Silent Godwin, none of them looked strong. He suspected one or two saw the mendicant life as better than working, but then they did take their poverty seriously, in an age where every other man was working to get away from that miserable estate. Derry cleared his throat, stif ling a cough that he’d developed somewhere in the wet and cold.
“Brother Peter, might I have a word with you?” he said.
The leader of their little group turned back immediately, his expression placid.
“Of course, Derry,” he said.
The older man’s lips were blue. Derry thought again of the fat purse tucked warm against his testicles.
“I . . . um . . . I won’t be going on with you,” Derry said, looking down at his feet rather than witness the disappointment he knew would be there in the monk’s face. “There’s a man I must meet at the castle. I’ll be stopping there for a time.”
“Ah,” Brother Peter replied. “Well, Derry, you’ll go with God’s blessing at least.”
To Derry’s surprise, the older man reached out and placed his hand on the sore skin of his crown, bowing his head with gentle pres- sure. He endured it, strangely moved by the old man’s faith as Brother Peter called on Saint Christopher and Saint Francis to guide him in his travels and trials ahead.
“Thank you, Brother Peter. It has been an honor.”
The older man smiled at him then, letting his hand fall away.
“I just hope those you seek to avoid have the sun in their eyes, Derry. I will pray that they are as blind as Saul of Tarsus when you pass by.”
Derry blinked at him in surprise, making Brother Peter chuckle. “Not many of those who join us insist on a tonsure after just a day or two on the road, Derry. Still, I dare say it did you no harm, despite Brother John’s roughness with the blade.”
Derry stared at him, amused despite his discomforts.
“I did wonder, Brother, how it is that some of you have a circle no more than three fingers wide on your pates, while I seem to have been shaved right down to the ears.”
Brother Peter’s dark eyes glinted then.
“That was my decision, Derry. I thought if a man was so very keen to have a tonsure, we should perhaps indulge his desire to the utmost. Forgive me, my son, if you would.”
“Of course, Brother Peter. You have brought me here safe and well.” On impulse, Derry hitched up his robe and reached deeply inside the folds, bringing out his purse. He pressed it into Brother Peter’s hands, folding the fingers over the damp leather.
“This is for you. There’s enough there to keep you all for a month, or longer.”
Brother Peter weighed the purse thoughtfully, then held it out. “God provides, Derry, always. Take it back, though your kindness is touching.”
Derry shook his head, backing away with his hands raised. “It’s yours, Brother Peter, please.”
“All right, all right,” the older man said, tucking it away. “I’m sure we’ll find a use for it, or someone with a greater need than our own. Go with God, Derry. Who knows, there might come a time when you decide to walk with us for longer than just a couple of days. I will pray for it. Come, brothers, the rain is starting once more.”
Each one of the group came to grip Derry’s hand and wish him well, even Silent Godwin, who crushed his hand in his big fist and patted Derry on the shoulder, still bowed down by the grindstone on his back.
Derry stood alone in the street at the top of the hill by the castle, watching the group of friars make their slow way down. It was true the rain was falling again and he shivered, turning toward the gatehouse of the royal fortress. He had a strong sense of eyes on him and he moved into a trot, heading into the shelter of the walls and approaching the dark figure of the guard on duty. Derry squinted in the gloom as he drew closer. The man was drenched to the skin just as he was, standing there in all weathers with his poleax and bell to sound an alarm.
“Good evening, my son,” Derry said, raising his hand to make the sign of the cross in the air.
The guard looked at him.
“You’re not allowed to beg here, Father,” the guard said gruffly, adding, “sorry,” after a moment’s thought.
Derry smiled, his teeth showing white in his sunburned face. “Send word to your captain. He’ll want to come down and see me.” “Not in the rain he won’t, Father, and that’s the truth,” the man replied uncomfortably.
Derry took a quick glance up and down the road. There was no one around and he was weary and starving.
“Tell him ‘vineyard’ and he will.”
The guard looked dubiously at him for some time while Derry waited, trying to show as much confidence as he could muster. After a time, the guard’s will faded and he shrugged, giving a sharp whistle.
A door came open in the gatehouse at his back and Derry heard a voice swearing at the rain and cold that blew in. The man who came out bore a fine set of mustaches, already wilt- ing in the rain. He was in the process of wiping his hands with a cloth, traces of fresh egg unnoticed on his lips. He ignored the friar standing in the rain and addressed himself to the guard.
“What is it?”
“This monk, sir. Asked me to fetch you out.”
Derry felt his temper fray as the captain of the guard continued to ignore his presence. He spoke quickly, though his chattering teeth made it hard to form the words.
“I’m cold, wet, and hungry, Hobbs. The word is ‘vineyard’ and the queen will want to see me. Let me in.”
Captain Hobbs was opening his mouth to respond angrily at being addressed in such a tone when he realized his name had been used, as well as the word he’d been told to remember some weeks before. He grew still then, his manner changing on the instant. He peered more closely at the grubby friar standing before him.
“Master Brewer? Good lord, man, what happened to your head?” “I am in disguise, Hobbs, if you must know. Now will you let me pass? My feet are aching and I’m cold enough to drop dead right here.” “Yes, sir, of course. I’ll take you to the queen. Her Highness was asking about you just a few days back.”
The rain fell harder, drumming against the miserable guard as they left him behind and went into the warm.
As tired and bedraggled as he was, Derry couldn’t help but notice the aura of hush that increased as Hobbs brought him to the king’s apartments. Servants walked without any of the usual clatter, speaking in whispers if they spoke at all. By the time Hobbs had brought him to the right door and given another password to the two men guarding it, Derry was certain there had been no improvement in the king’s health. Some fourteen months had passed since King Henry had collapsed into a stupor so deep he could not be roused. The year 1454 had aged to the end of summer with no king on the throne in London, only the Duke of York to rule in his stead as “Protector and Defender of the Realm.” England had a long history of regents for royal children—Henry himself had needed good men to rule in his stead when he’d inherited the throne as a child. Yet there was no precedent for madness, inherited no doubt from Henry’s mother and the taint of her royal French line.
Derry endured a thorough search of his person. When the guards were satisfied he bore no weapon, or at least had found none, they announced him and opened the door to the inner chambers.
He swept through, taking in the sight of the queen at dinner with her husband. At first glance, King Henry looked as if he sat normally, nodding over a bowl of soup. Derry spotted the ropes binding him to his chair so he could not fall, as well as the servant who looked up as he entered, holding a soup spoon to feed his master. As Derry came closer, he saw Henry wore a bib that had collected as much soup as went inside him. Rich broth dribbled down the king’s slack lips and as Derry knelt and bowed his head, he could hear soft, choking sounds coming from him.
Captain Hobbs had not stepped beyond the threshold. The door closed at Derry’s back and he saw the young queen rise from her seat, an expression of horror on her face.
“Oh your head, Derry! What have you done to yourself?”
“Your Highness, I preferred to come to you without my movements being noted and reported at every step. Please, it is nothing. It will surely grow back, or so I am told.” He noticed in exasperation that the queen seemed to be struggling with laughter.
“It’s like an egg, Derry! They’ve left you hardly any hair at all.”
“Yes, Your Highness, the Franciscan who wielded the razor was unusually thorough.” As he rose from kneeling, he felt himself stag- ger slightly, the combination of the room’s warmth and hunger bring- ing a wave of weakness.
The queen saw his frailty and her smile vanished.
“Humphrey! Help Master Brewer to a seat before he falls down. Quickly now, he is close to fainting.”
Derry looked around dazedly for the man whom she addressed, feeling himself taken under the arms and dropped into a wide, wooden chair. He blinked, trying to summon his wits from where they had suddenly scattered. Such weakness was embarrassing, especially considering he knew Brother Peter was still out in the rain, heading for his barn and a place to sleep.
“I’ll be all right in a moment, Your Highness,” Derry said. “I’ve been on the road a long time.” He did not say that he’d been hunted, stretching his wits and his contacts to their limits just to stay ahead of the men searching for him. He’d been spotted and chased three times in the previous month, twice in the week before he’d joined the monks. He knew there would come a time when his legs failed or he couldn’t reach a safe spot to hide. The Duke of York’s men were clos- ing a net all around him. He could almost feel the rough twine on his throat.
Derry looked up to thank the man who had helped him, his eyes widening as he recognized the Duke of Buckingham. Humphrey Stafford was red-faced and large, a man of enormous appetites. He’d handled Derry as easily as a child, and the spymaster could only wonder how much weight he’d lost on the road.
The duke leaned in to peer at him, the man’s swollen great nose wrinkling in distaste.
“Dead on his feet, almost,” Buckingham announced. To Derry’s discomfort the man leaned even closer and sniffed at him. “His breath is sweet, Your Highness, like rot. Whatever he has to say, I’d get him to talk now, before he ups and dies on us.”
Derry squinted back at the face looming over him. “I’ll survive, my lord. I usually do.”
At no time had any of the three looked directly at King Henry. He sat mute at the table, unseeing and unfeeling. Derry risked a glance from under lowered brows and wished he hadn’t. The king was thin and pale, but that was not so strange. The eyes were open and utterly empty. Derry might have believed him a corpse if he hadn’t breathed, his head bobbing slightly at every inhalation.
“Hot broth for Master Brewer,” Derry heard Queen Margaret say. “And bread, butter, more of the cold beef with garlic, anything you can find.” He closed his eyes in thanks, letting the aches and pains become distant as the room’s heat settled into his bones. He hadn’t been close to a good fire for a long time. Relief and exhaustion stole over him and he was almost asleep by the time plates were placed under his nose. The smell roused him and he fell to with a sudden surge of appetite that brought a sparkle of amusement back to Margaret’s eyes. He could feel the hot soup bringing him to life, as if its goodness reached right down his limbs and seeped along the marrow of his bones. Derry smacked his lips and tore at bread so fresh he did not even have to dip it in the soup to soften it.
“I think he’ll live,” Buckingham said wryly from across the table. “I’d watch the tablecloth, if I were you, Your Highness. He might eat it, the way he’s forcing food down his throat.”
Derry looked coldly at the man, biting his tongue rather than make another enemy. One duke seeking to bring him down was probably enough, at least for the moment.
He settled back in his chair, knowing the queen indulged him more than most of those who served her. He was grateful for it. Derry used the cloth to mop the corners of his mouth and smiled at Buck-
ingham as he did so.
“Your Highness, thank you for your patience. I am revived enough to report what news I have.”
“You have been gone for two months, Derry! What kept you away from the king for such a time?”
Derry sat up straight, pushing aside his plate just in time for it to be whisked away by a servant.
“Your Highness, I have been strengthening the ranks of those reporting to me. I have men and women in every noble house, loyal to King Henry. Some of them have gone, either found and taken, or forced to run. Others have moved to positions of greater authority, which they seem to believe means higher pay from me. I took the time to explain how loyalty to the king cannot be measured in silver, though some would ask thirty pieces at a time.”
Queen Margaret was a beautiful young woman, still in her twenties, with clear skin and a slender neck. She narrowed her eyes as Derry spoke, f lickering a glance at her husband as if he might respond after all the months of silence. Derry’s heart went out to her, wife to a man who knew her not at all.
“What of York, Derry? Tell me of him.”
Derry looked up at the ornate ceiling for the length of a breath, deciding how best to describe the Protectorate without dashing her hopes. The simple truth was that York had not botched the work of running the country. Of all the accusations Derry might have leveled at Richard Plantagenet, incompetence was not one. In his heart of hearts, he knew the duke was managing the vast and complex business of state with rather more skill and understanding than King Henry ever had. It was not the sort of thing he could say to the king’s young wife, desperate for good news.
“He makes no secret of his support for the Nevilles, Your Highness. Between York and Earl Salisbury, they are gaining estates and manors all over the country. I heard of a dozen cases brought to court, where a Neville seizure of land is at the heart.”
Lines appeared on the queen’s brow and she waved a hand in a gesture of impatience.
“Tell me of unrest, Derry! Of his failures! Tell me the people of England are withholding their support for this man.” Derry hesitated for a beat, before going on.
“The garrison in Calais has refused orders, Your Highness. That is a thorn in York’s side he must overcome. They are the largest army available to the Crown and they claim not to have had any pay since the fall of Maine and Anjou. The last I heard was that they had seized the season’s wool and are threatening to sell it for their own coffers.”
“Better, Derry, much better. He could send Earl Somerset to treat with them, if he had not lost that good man’s support by his attacks on my husband. They would listen to Somerset, I am certain. You know York has reduced the king’s own household? His men came with their writs and seals, dismissing loyal staff without even a pension, taking horses from the stables here, to be distributed among their master’s supporters. Bloodlines that can never again be collected in one place. All in the name of his mean silver pennies, Derry!”
“I did hear that, Your Highness,” Derry said uncomfortably. He wondered when York slept, to have accomplished so many things in a single year. The problems with the Calais garrison were one of only half a dozen minor black marks against the York Protectorate. The country was running well enough and though some spoke out against the reductions in the royal household, York had been ruthless in his collection of state funds, then spent the income wisely to gather even more support. Derry could see a time coming when the country would prefer King Henry never to wake, if things went on as they were. He and Margaret needed York to suffer a disaster, or the king to recover his senses. They needed that, most of all, before it was too late. Derry looked again at the blank-faced monarch nodding in his chair, feeling a shudder race through him and goose pimples rise on his arms. For a living man to be reduced to such a state was an evil thing.
“Has there been no improvement in the king’s illness?” he said. Margaret sat a little straighter, armoring herself against pain as she replied.
“There are two new doctors to tend him, now that fool Allworthy is gone. I have endured all manner of pious men come to prod and poke and pray over my husband. He has suffered much worse, such sickening practices as I will not describe to you. None of them have brought his spirit back to the flesh. Buckingham has been a great comfort to me, but even he despairs at times, don’t you, Humphrey?” The duke made a noncommittal sound, choosing to sup from the bowl of broth set before him.
“Your son, though, Your Highness?” Derry asked, as gently as he could. “When you showed him to King Henry, was there no response at all?”
Margaret’s mouth tightened.
“You sound like that Abbot Whethamstede, with his probing questions. Henry looked up when I showed him the babe. He raised his eyes for a moment and I am certain he knew what he was being told.” Her eyes gleamed with tears, daring him to contradict her.
Derry cleared his throat, beginning to wish he had not come. “The council of lords will meet next month, Your Highness, to name your son Edward as both royal heir and Prince of Wales. If York interferes with that, his ambition to rule will be revealed. Though it would be a cruel blow, I almost hope for it, that others may know the true face of his Protectorate and what he intends. Those noblemen who still bluster and refuse to see the truth will not be able to deny it then.”
Margaret looked to her husband, anguish written clearly on her face.
“I cannot hope for that, Derry. My son is the heir. For little Edward, I suffered the humiliation of York and Salisbury present at the birth, creeping around my bed and peeping under the covers to be sure the babe was my own! Lord Somerset almost came to blows to protect my honor then, Derry. There are times when I wish he had put a sword through the Plantagenet then and there, for his impudence and his insults. No, Master Brewer. No! I must not even think of those cowards denying my son his birthright.”
Derry flushed at what she had endured, though he had heard the tale before, more than once. A part of him could admire York’s twisted mind for even thinking the pregnancy could have been faked and another child brought in. At least that had been laid to rest, though there were still rumors of a different father. Somerset’s name was whispered there, dutifully reported back to Derry’s twitching ears. Knowing Somerset’s prickly honor, Derry doubted it was more than a scurrilous lie, if a clever one.
As he sat and thought, Derry found himself nodding almost in time with the king, exhaustion overwhelming him once again. He could have blessed Margaret when she saw he was f lagging and sent him away to be tended and to rest. He knelt to her and bowed to the Duke of Buckingham as he left, looking back once more at the king in his stupor, blind and deaf to all that went on around him. Derry stumbled along behind a servant until he was shown to a room that smelled of damp and dust. Without even bothering to remove his wet robe, he fell full-length onto the bed and slept.
What People are Saying About This
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